Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008)
Postcolonialism / Contemporary Literature
Mahmoud Darwish, a poet and activist, is considered to be the National Poet of Palestine. Born in a small village in Galilee in 1941, Darwish experienced the razing of his village by Israeli soldiers when he was 7 years old. His family was never allowed to reclaim their land. The family returned a year later to what was now Israel and settled in the Arab section of Galilee. As a young adult, Darwish settled in Haifa, the third-largest city in Israel, known for peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
In college, Darwish joined the Israeli Communist Party and served as editor of their journal, where he began to publish poems. Darwish studied in Russia for a year in 1970; afterward, he moved to Egypt. When he joined the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1973, he was banned from re-entering Israel. For many years, he lived in Beirut and in Paris; in 1995, he was permitted to return and settled in Ramallah.
Darwish published his first volume of poetry, Leaves of Olives, at 22. He was a prolific writer and published over 30 volumes of poetry over his lifetime; he also edited a number of Arabic political and literary journals. His poems address the exile of the Palestinian people and were often read or recited at nationalist meetings, events, and protests. When “Identity Card” became the protest song of the resistance in the 1960s, Darwish was placed under house arrest.
Palestinians revere Darwish as the poet who gives voice to their sense of homelessness; according to the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, quoted on the site of the Poetry Foundation, Darwish’s style is “lyrical, imagistic, plaintive, haunting, always passionate and elegant—and never anything less than free—what he would dream for all his people.”
Darwish was honored with a number of awards, including the Ibn Sina Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize, the 1969 Lotus prize from the Union of Afro-Asian Writers, France’s Knight of Arts and Belles Lettres medal in 1997, the 2001 Prize for Cultural Freedom from the Lannan Foundation, the Moroccan Wissam of intellectual merit handed to him by King Mohammad VI of Morocco, and the USSR’s Stalin Peace Prize.
“Victim Number 18” (1967) was written to memorialize the victims of a 1956 Israeli attack on a Palestinian village at the start of the Suez War in which 48 villagers were killed. The speaker is one of the victims of the attack. “Identity Card” (1964), arguably Darwish’s best-known poem, at one time became a protest song for the Nationalist movement; at demonstrations, protestors chanted “Write Down! I am an Arab!” In this poem, the speaker, or speakers, embody the lives of ordinary Palestinians.
Consider while reading:
- How does Darwish characterize life before the attack in “Victim Number 18”?
- How does he characterize the attackers?
- In “Identity Card,” how might the poem function as a rallying cry for protest?
- How does Darwish characterize the lives of ordinary Palestinians?
Written by Anita Turlington